Mass Incarceration and Bipartisan Unity: An Anarchist Perspective

As momentum builds behind the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, I begin to wonder how much time and energy will be pulled away from the revolutionary anti-racist work of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and funnel instead into the fervent campaigning of Democratic candidates. Within the horrific, seemingly endless loss of Black lives, there has erupted a new era of racial justice work, much of it surprisingly and wonderfully radical in nature. Entire communities are calling for localized conflict resolution, the dismantling of institutional white supremacy, and even the abolition of police and prisons.

Democratic presidential nominees are very clearly aware of the power of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and are taking advantage of this momentum to build their platforms and gain votes. And as I correctly predict every election season, I dread that many people around me will fall for the illusion of a better future through the election of so-and-so only to be disappointed just months after inauguration day. In my current work as an anarchist in the small town of Champaign, Illinois, I organize with several other committed people against jail expansion – a local manifestation of institutional racism. As election season nears I am beginning to grow anxious about what direction our group will take.

Just two days after Freddie Gray’s funeral, Hilary Clinton gave a speech in New York where she called for an end to mass incarceration. Clinton, a Democrat who once called for more prisons in the 1990s now joins the growing list of politicians and corporate thugs who are suddenly concerned with the U.S. prison population. Newt Gingrich, Rand Paul, Mark Holden (senior vice president and general counsel for Koch Industries), the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for American Progress, President Obama and many others are all apparently very concerned with the prison industrial complex or at least that’s what they have been saying; and they’re all willing to come together in unity to fix the problem. If you look more closely, however, you will find that many of these “advocates” have supported, both politically and financially, policies and people who are directly responsible for the United States achieving the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Some prison abolitionists are skeptical of this apparent compassion for people being dragged through the criminal justice system. “What worries me the most,” responded Ruth Wilson Gilmore on The Laura Flanders Show, “is that the kind of rhetoric that accompanies these kinds of bipartisan consensus that we can see… is to harden the system for everybody that doesn’t stand to benefit from the system.” Addressing the same issue on Democracy Now, Angela Davis said “It is essential to point out that people have been struggling around these issues for a very long time. And oftentimes when these new moments emerge, it is as if the legislators have come up with this idea for the very first time.” And it shows. At a recent Q&A event with presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, the candidate replied to a question about for-profit prisons by saying “It seems to me that rather than spending huge amounts of money on jails and on private corporations who are incentivized to keep people in jail, it might make a lot more sense to spend money on job training and education so that people do not end up in jail in the first place.” Sanders speaks as if Black criminality, rather than an intricate system rooted in capitalist white supremacy, is why so many Blacks are in the grips of the criminal justice system. Many Black activists aren’t falling for this charade though, as women like Tia Oso proved at a conference called Netroots Nation last week when she challenged Sanders and Martin O’Malley’s commitment to challenging systemic racism. What was O’Malley’s thoughtful response to Oso’s courageous question? The ever problematic and white-focused response of the past year: “All lives matter.”

There is a serious lack of necessary racial and economic analysis on the part of all of these candidates, organizations and corporations now coming out against mass incarceration. While some, like Clinton, may acknowledge that African Americans are incarcerated at higher rates, no call to challenge white supremacy or capitalism – the root causes of these problems – has been even whispered by any of these figures or institutions, nor will it be. Even worse, many well intentioned liberals turn the blame right back on young Black people and speak about saving these wayward youth from making bad decisions. Yes, job opportunities and education are essential to the well being of Black Americans, but those things are not enough to cure a criminal justice system born out of and sustained by racism and economic inequality.

Many local politicians in my town of Champaign, Illinois want to expand the Satellite jail facility (1 of 3 detention facilities) at an estimated cost of $32-37 million. While the Champaign County board has voted to temporarily shelve the idea (due to a lack of funds as well as enormous public pressure and mobilization against jail construction) the proposal has not altogether disappeared, nor has necessary programming to help decrease recidivism been put in its place. Our town still has no detox center, not nearly enough community-based mental health support, no homeless shelters, no racial justice task force, and one underfunded reentry program. A new community-based reentry program has been launched but is in the early stages of organization. Like numerous other cities in the United States, Champaign’s jails are filled with people too poor to post bail or pay fines as well as those in serious need of mental health treatment. On any given day over half of those in the jails are Black, even though they make up only 13% of our county’s population.

Our local campaign to “Build programs, not jails” has many aims that I fully support as an anarchist: organizing ourselves on a consensus basis, advocating programming outside of a jail environment and not supporting a single dollar to jail construction. Some approaches are questionable from a radical point of view – one that examines and addresses root causes – but I am not alone with my concerns on several issues. Some want to emphasize a “diplomatic” and “civil” approach to county board members and other “respectable” community members such as police officers, judges and high profile lawyers. I personally push for helping to create a forum to empower community members most affected by jail expansion and feel that this is how systemic change is historically and currently made. We have found a balance in varying approaches and have so far succeeded in curbing jail construction, sparking crucial discussion, and gathering diverse groups of people in meetings and at public events. Wherever we find ourselves on the political spectrum one essential point all of us understand is that systemic change is necessary.

Anarchists are abolitionists (though one need not be an anarchist to be an abolitionist). We oppose State and corporate “criminal justice” systems and the archaic use of prisons, police and jails. We hope for, envision, and sometimes successfully create* alternative methods of conflict resolution. We don’t advocate a new code of laws, a universal system of restorative justice or any centralized, party-line way of rectifying an injustice. Instead, we advocate for varying community-based (decentralized) methods of addressing human needs and actual harm. We understand that different communities need different methods of securing safety and gaining justice; and we support a diversity of tactics that aim at creating non-hierarchical and egalitarian communities.

*Examples of “needs-based paradigms” can be found in the excellent book, Anarchy Works by Peter Gelderloos.

Kristina Khan lives in Champaign, Illinois with her partner and their three children. She works as a radical doula, organizes an anarchist study group, and organizes with some amazing people in the local Build Programs, Not Jails campaign as well as other local efforts aimed at dismantling oppression and creating a healthier, more free community.